Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
“Father, should I help you in turning you over to your left side?” enquired the young woman. “You’ll be more comfortable that way. At least for sometime. You’ve been lying on your back since Agra. For over two hours now.”
The man, had been staring – for what seemed to him to be a lifetime – at the roof of the compartment of the train. His eyes were riveted to the ceiling fans that whirred with a monotonous constancy. The ceiling fans were a little lethargic in getting started; a problem which one solved by twirling the blades with a comb or a pen-knife. This triggered off the rotary motion and thus the supply of air commenced. There was little else the man could do to stave off boredom. There had been some entertainment provided a little while ago, by a blind man, who was led by a little girl, upon whose tiny shoulders he rested his arm. He sang film songs of yesteryears – the sad ones which had words like, “When the heart is itself broken what will I do by going on living?” and “My Life’s path is flooded with tears; will someone not tell her to forget me?”.
The little girl went around from one passenger to another with a begging-bowl. The passengers would drop some spare change into the bowl or give them a few leftovers or shoo them away or sanctimoniously eye them for just a moment before going back to their own lives.
The man now looked up at the pleasant face of his daughter who had asked the question of him. You could read an entire epic from that face, he thought to himself! It was plain, yet not devoid of charm. Her features were not distinguished, save the eyes. Her eyes were as black as a moonless night and deep as a lake. They exuded warmth. They seemed not only to empathize with another person’s suffering, but also to partake of it. They craved for a chance to share the sorrows of another. He saw her forehead, to which a few strands of hair had stuck with the aid of perspiration. He badly wanted to wipe the sweat from the brow of his daughter and plant it with twenty kisses. But he found that he was struggling to even move. He realized that his left hand, the useful one, had somehow got to occupy an uncomfortable position; below his back. Try as hard as he might, he could not extricate it. His daughter would have to help him out. The right half of his body had been rendered useless by a paralytic stroke that had struck him a year ago. That body which in its prime had the power of a bull; that body that took to all forms of rigorous activity like a fish takes to water – that very body had been dealt with a massive blow, from which half of it would probably never recover. Also, that devastating blow had robbed him of the faculty of speech.
A tea-vendor announced his arrival with the cries, “Tea, tea, hot tea.” He was armed with a kettle in one hand and a bucket in the other. In the bucket lay tea-cups submerged in water. When nobody paid him any attention, he moved on crying out louder, “Tea, tea, hot tea.”
The man now made an attempt to say something which his daughter seemed to understand but which to the other passengers was as incomprehensible as the babble of a baby. His daughter smiled as she extricated the hand which had somehow slipped under his back. She also turned him over to his left side from where he sighted the faces of his co-passengers as they grimaced on seeing his agony. One of them spat some betel-nut pieces out of the window. Did they feel pity for him? Or did they grimace out of a sense of revulsion? Why did he have to be so dependent on another person? He hated himself for this. Throughout his life he had always prided himself for doing his personal things himself. Washing his clothes and making his bed for instance. Now he could not even put on a shirt without somebody’s assistance. Often he had tried to convey to his daughter how miserable he was and how desperately he wanted to rid himself of his predicament.
A few months back, owing to some unforeseen circumstances, his daughter was held up in her office. After finishing work, she had hurried back home and on entering the house enquired as to how he was. She then changed her clothes, splashed some water on her face and began preparing dinner straightaway. She had no one to help her: the ayah, who did the household work, cooked lunch for her father and also looked after his needs, had left. As he watched her in her frenetic state, he felt a pang of guilt. Had she been all alone, she could have brought dinner from outside, perhaps eaten outside or may be even skipped the meal. (Women were known for observing fasts at the drop of a hat). But his presence meant that she was forced into the pressure-cooker like atmosphere of the kitchen, right after a day’s hard work at the office. So seized was he by the sense of guilt that he made up his mind that he would tell her that he was fed up. Fed up with having to depend upon her. Fed up with leading a useless life. Fed up to the extent that he wanted to take his own life. But how would he be able to get the message across? He wondered.
After dinner, while she was making his bed, he made an attempt. He motioned her to observe him. He was seated in his wheelchair. There was a glass lying on the side-table beside the bed. He picked up a bottle of medicine from the side-table and made a gesture of pouring its entire contents into the glass. He then put the glass to his lips and demonstrated as though he emptied its contents. He kept the glass on the side-table and then suddenly made his body writhe as though seized by a spasm. His head lolled back on his shoulders and then dropped in front as though for the last time. His daughter let out a shriek of horror. Then overcome by a bout of sobbing, she fell at his feet in a supplicating manner.
“Father, how can you even think of doing such a thing? Do I not take adequate care of you? Are you so unhappy as to want to take your life? I admit I was a little late this evening”
God! She had misunderstood. He closed his eyes and shook his head from side to side to convey that he did not mean what she thought he had meant. But it was useless. She was sobbing uncontrollably now. “I…was late…there was pressing work….two clerks have gone on leave….another fell ill today…..But I’ll not be late tomorrow…I’ll tell them…I’ll excuse myself”. Why did she not understand? He was not angry with her. Would he ever complain of her neglecting him? (Who would take as much care of him as she did?)
“Father, you must not be angry with me…I’ll see whether…whether we can employ a full-time maid…but the problem is…we…. we…cannot afford it.”
He placed his left palm on her head and stroked her hair to try to comfort her. She could not understand and he could not explain. He clutched her shoulder and wept with her. There was no other way out.
He now looked at her. She sat on the edge of the berth. She seemed to be in a state of ever-preparedness to assist him at the moment of his seeking her help. She now lifted her feet a little above the floor to allow an urchin- naked except for his worn out pants- to sweep the floor of the compartment in the hope of securing some change or a slice of bread from the more generous of passengers. The boy put out his hand into which she dropped a coin. He went away.
This single-minded devotion had taken a toll of her. A few months ago, he noticed a few stands of grey hair that had appeared near her temples. Also, she looked pale and tired. She looked much older than her twenty-eight years. Her mother had died six years ago. It was then that she decided not to marry.
“Who will look after you in your old age, if I marry?” she had asked.
“You silly girl,” he had replied. “Can I not take care of myself? Am I not strong enough? You must think of yourself. You’ve a whole life to lead. As for me, I’ll be gone in ten, maybe fifteen years.”
“Don’t say that, Father. My primary responsibility is to look after you.”
“Responsibility? What sort of responsibility? Your only responsibility is to yourself. You cannot destroy your life for my sake.”
He would have got a better response had he spoken to the wall-clock. May be she will come around later, he thought. But she did not. A few months later one of her school-mates, now well settled, had asked for her hand. She had refused.
“I do not want to marry -at the moment that is.”
“Then, when? After I die? When you’re forty?”
“Father, why are you getting so worked up?”
“You must understand, my dear. No father can bear to see his daughter ruin her life with her own hands.”
The years rolled by. Since his paralytic stroke, he had not broached the topic of her marriage; he felt truly insecure now and realized that should she marry and leave the house, he would be in dire straits.
They were undertaking this train journey to collect his dues. He was to retire a couple of days later. He had not attended office after he had the stroke. He had exhausted all the leave standing to his credit. The conditions of service required him to be present on the last day of his service. He was silently praying to God that this be his last journey. He was retiring from service; he wanted to retire from Life as well. His daughter would then be emancipated and could start a new life.
Three months after he retired, he passed off peacefully in his sleep. His daughter wept bitterly. However well-prepared for the inevitable one is, one cannot insulate one’s self from the pain of the event.
The days dragged on. Earlier she was so occupied all day long that she had no time to mull over other matters. Now, she was all by herself. She even missed attending to her father. At least there had been that something to do after returning from office. There had been that somebody to cook for. Now she would come back from office and slump down on the bed. She would then stare vacantly at the ceiling. If she fell up to it, she would prepare dinner. Often, she fell asleep without eating anything and got up on the middle of the night, hungry. The only comforting moments were those spent after office, in the company of colleagues. But the moment she returned home, the monster of loneliness devoured her.
One evening, after just returning from office, she was in the process of splashing some water on her face when the doorbell rang. Who could it be, she wondered? She peeped through the peep-hole. It was an office colleague, Rakesh who every second girl in the office found both handsome and dignified.
There was an awkward period of silence. She tried to relieve this by smiling.
“May…May I come in?”he enquired.
“Oh…yes…sure, sure, come in. Only…only leave the door open. You know how it is… the people around..!”
“I understand, Anita.”
“Do sit down…” They sat down.
“Should I…I…I’ll fetch you something”.
“Please do not bother.”
The discomforting spell of silence descended upon them once again. Rakesh broke it once again.
“You…You know, Anita. You know…I’ve. I’ve been…let me… Do you like me?”
“Well….I….I suppose, yes…”
Rakesh paused and drew in a long breath of air before speaking.
“Anita…Anita…I hope…Well…Will you marry me?” he asked, literally blurting out the last few words.
It was as though someone had pulled away the chair she was about to sit on and she had landed on the floor with a thud. She felt a swarm of colors rush towards her, seize her, lift her and carry her up, up far, far away.
“Anita…I know I’m being brash…But I ask…Will you marry me?”
“Uh…But…” The words were difficult to come by. Rakesh waited patiently. He once again broke the uncomforting silence.
“Anita…I know…Gosh, how silly I sound…my voice is breaking…One… One tries to control oneself for days…for months… then all of a sudden the dam breaks…Will you marry me?”
“Well…Let me…consider…But…you know, Rakesh…you…you are younger and attractive”
“I am ignorant of anything save the good that is in you. That…That which is not visible to the world”.
“But…how should I…am I not too old…too old to accept?”
“Anita, you are young. As young as anyone else. Only, you have hidden this fact from yourself. What’s more, you’ve got a big heart…bigger than there can ever be…I’m indeed fortunate that my search had ended in you…I have found treasure.”
Ayah – A nurse or maid native to India
About the Author:
SATISH PENDHARKAR, 48 years old is an Indian citizen who lives in Mumbai. His Short Stories have been published by Savvy and Alive. A full-length play of his titled The Last Journey was short listed for the Hindu Metro Plus Playwright Award 2012.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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